China’s “Fifth Generation” was born out of a paradox – the enthusiasm of “rusticated youths” who had been sent by Mao to the countryside admitted to the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) after years tilling arid fields. This paradox continued to inform and structure this Generation’s best achievements: formal experimentations conducted within the confines of the official studio system; “safe” adaptations of literary masterpieces to address issues of cinematic realism; the recent (mostly “feudal”) past as a stand-in for the ever-evolving present. The June 4, 1989 events that became known in the West as the Tiananmen Massacre fractured this apparently benevolent status quo. A number of Fifth Generation filmmakers found an exit route by securing residencies in the United States and Europe. For others, things became difficult.
Noted as one of the few (and brilliant) BFA female graduates, Li Shaohong had attracted attention with her first feature, The Silver Snake Murder Case (Yinshe masha an, 1988), a violent detective story that made the censor frown but was a commercial success. For her second feature, Bloody Morning (Xuese qingchen, 1990), she adapted an undisputed gem of world literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada, 1981), that had been brought to the screen a few years earlier in a French-Columbian co-production that opened Cannes in 1987. However, something went wrong in the transposition of the novella into the Chinese countryside, and without explanation this extraordinary film was banned for years. Was it because the violence depicted could not be ascribed to the ills of feudalism? Or because Li proposed a cutting-edge view of female sexuality and female chastity? Or because the film offered the spectacle of two Chinese men butchering an intellectual (the local schoolteacher) while the rest of the town did nothing?
Li rebounded with Family Portrait (Sishi buhuo, 1992), a contemporary urban drama financed by Taiwan’s ERA International (1), about a 40-year old man discovering a son he never knew he had. The film won the Critics Prize in Locarno. Li also purchased the rights for a story penned by Su Tong, one of the most acclaimed Chinese writers living at the time, whose novella Wives and Concubines had recently been turned into Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong denglong gaogao gua,1991) by Zhang Yimou. Blush, however, is not another story of female sexual rivalry, as Li’s novel sensitively reshuffles the cards.
Not only do Blush’s two heroines love each other, but unlike the static world created by Zhang, Li’s film depicts a universe cracking at the seams, in which relationships, beliefs and identities are constantly shifting. The first shot poignantly tracks away from a high-end brothel in the Suzhou area, near Shanghai. We witness the exodus of the prostitutes of the Red Happiness Inn as they are “liberated” and “rehabilitated” by the People’s Liberation Army soon after the Communist takeover. Feisty, headstrong Qiu Yi (Wang Ji) looks over her “little sister,” a wailing, yet charming waif called Xiao’e (He Saifei, who had played Third Wife in Raise the Red Lantern) while they are interned in special quarters to be taught that manual labour brings happiness and freedom. Qiu Yi manages to escape, but has to leave the irresolute Xiao’e behind. She rushes to a former patron, Lao Pu (Wang Zhiwen) who still lives with his mother and servants in his family’s ancestral mansion. Obsessed with Qiu Yi, Lao Pu nevertheless lacks the courage to stand up for her when his mother objects to her prolonged presence. Qiu Yi, in a fit of anger, leaves him.
Li Shaohong’s screenplay (co-written with Ni Zhen) (2) and her masterful direction slowly bring Qiu Yi’s contradictory feelings to light: she loves Lao Pu, but living as his kept mistress eventually bores her. Emotions are social constructions too. Released four years before Hou Hsiao-hsien’s own exploration of the fin de siècle demimonde in Flowers of Shanghai (Haishanghua, 1998), Blush intelligently deconstructs the mutual attraction between a courtesan and her favourite patron: as shimmering, multilayered and falsely transparent as an expensive silk garment.
Yet women are more savvy when it comes to shedding garments and therefore react to social change, while men are prone to cling to feudal habits. Qiu Yi’s love morphs from alienating myth to perplexing reality. And Lao Pu, forever respectful of his mother and at times displaying generous outbursts of passion, is also childishly tyrannical with his women. The contradictions are heightened to the point that Qiu Yi seeks refuge in a Buddhist convent, her head shaven, trying to hide a shameful pregnancy. Meanwhile, a now-dispossessed Lao Pu has become a frugally paid accountant and starts hanging out with a rehabilitated Xiao’e.
Borrowing its spectacular one-shot-sequences and subtle camera movements from the aesthetics of traditional scroll painting, the mise en scene effortlessly contains the melodramatic aspects of the plot. By keeping some of its most harrowing moments off-screen (the miscarriage, Qiu Yi’s arranged marriage) or in the depth of field (the execution) Li grants an elegant, compassionate breathing space to her characters, and avoids the double trap of sentimentality and voyeurism. Instead of striving to extract “the truth” of the protagonists through an excess of close-ups, she glides on the surface, respecting their opacity, ambiguity and unpredictability.
Qiu Yi, the spirited, voluptuous, blasé and lazy courtesan, turns out to be generous and selfless. Conversely, Xiao’e gradually sheds her mien as a lost child, “born in a brothel, born to be a whore,” to become a smiling seductress and then a nagging housewife whose phoney suicide attempts imply that her earlier helplessness may have been a (conscious or unconscious) strategy of manipulation.
Never judgmental – everyone has his/her “own reasons” – Li skilfully resorts to off-screen narration to evoke the gap between what the characters appear to be and what they are, a Brechtian form of chorus/alienation effect welded to intimate tableaus of ordinary life in 1950s Shanghai. Her faultless strategy, while composing some of the most beautiful images seen in Chinese cinema in the 1990s, conveys how troubled, brittle and sad is the unspoken bond between contradictory people living in a contradictory environment.
1. This company also produced Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi, 1989) and Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong denglong gaogao gua, 1991).
2. Ni Zhen was Professor of Art Direction and Professor of Film Theory at the Beijing Film Academy from 1980 to 2000. He also wrote the screenplay of Raise the Red Lantern. He is the author of Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation, trans. Chris Berry (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
Blush (Hong fen) (1995 People’s Republic of China 115 mins)
Prod Co: Beijing Film Studio, Ocean Film Prod: Chen Kunming, Yi Liu, Jimmy Tan Dir: Li Shaohong Scr: Ni Zhen, Li Shaohong, Su Tong (novel) Phot: Zeng Nianping Ed: Zhou Xinxia Art Dir: Chen Yiyun, Lin Chaoying Mus: Guo Wenjing
Cast: Wang Ji, He Saifei, Wang Zhiwen
NB: Names in this article follow the Chinese order, with family names first.